Deion Sanders won’t be content until he’s hoisting the championship trophy at midfield next week in Atlanta after the Celebration Bowl, but even then, the Jackson State coach probably still won’t be satisfied.
The Tigers cruised to their first Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) title in 13 years in front of more than 50,000 fans at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson, Miss., last week. The 27-10 win, which punched their ticket to the Dec. 18 bowl game, was a monumental moment for JSU athletics.
But as Sanders emphasized, it was only a moment.
“We have to finish what we started,” Sanders told Sportico. “We have work to do.”
Sanders’ sentiment ahead of the Celebration Bowl, the unofficial national championship game for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, is symbolic of how he feels overall about this season, restoring the storied HBCU program into a winner—elated but not completely fulfilled. The Pro Football Hall of Famer has delivered in his second season at the helm and believes the ultimate key to sustaining this momentum is leveraging business off the field.
For underfunded HBCUs, like JSU, one of the avenues is through financial commitments from major corporations. Procter and Gamble’s Gillette recently announced plans to donate up to $100,000 to the JSU Tiger Fund Athletic Foundation as part of rollout for a new razor, which Sanders helped designed.
Walmart (NYSE: WMT) pledged $2.4 million to JSU earlier this year in a wide-ranging deal that will also benefit non-athletes. The three-year commitment includes rebuilding JSU’s practice field.
More support from major companies may be needed as JSU looks to build a new football stadium on campus after playing at Veterans Memorial for more than 50 years. While donations to JSU athletics have improved incrementality during Sanders’ tenure, according to a source, Sanders himself says it remains an ongoing battle to get alumni and local dignitaries to open their wallets.
“I’m pretty darn sure it’s time for a new stadium, but there has to be business conducted,” Sanders said. “Everybody has ideas, but nobody is chipping in…. These Fortune 500 companies must see an attraction in us, and see us as a resource, so we can reciprocate whatever they give. That’s how it’s done.”
One of these Fortune 500 companies is The Walt Disney Co. (NYSE: DIS), which owns ESPN. The sports network featured 89 HBCU games across its platforms this season, including the MEAC/SWAC Challenge. The prime spotlight resulted in the opener being the most-watched Challenge since 2010.
JSU alone will have played on ESPN platforms nine times this year, not including the Celebration Bowl on ABC. Gaining more national exposure is critical, for JSU and HBCU programs nationwide, and ESPN’s stamp of approval is a means to legitimize them.
ESPN is one of countless brands that became more intentional in its contributions and coverage of HBCUs in the wake of George Floyd’s death last year. Meanwhile, Power 5 conferences like the Pac-12 inked multi-year scheduling partnerships with HBCU conferences. The list goes on, but the pivotal point for JSU and HBCUs will be keeping the awareness alive when the narrative isn’t as popular anymore.
“My hope is that all these things are more long-term and sustainable and not just done in reaction to the fact that people are still on edge about some of the racial reckoning that took place in 2020,” said Miami professor Willis Jones, who studies the relationship between economics and HBCU athletics.
Celebration Bowl executive director John Grant shared similar thoughts as Sanders, in that HBCU programs like JSU must seek corporate backing to reach their full potential, but it’s a two-way street.
“It’s up to us to continue to push the envelope and to create value so that corporations are willing to invest and see the return on investment,” said Grant, who oversees the ESPN-owned bowl game.
One of the biggest benefits of increased exposure, like appearances on national TV, is the priceless impact on enrollment, a core funding mechanism at most universities, but especially at HBCUs.
JSU saw its enrollment increase 2.3% to 7,080 this past fall, according to a school report. The uptick can be attributed to a 27% bump in its freshman class this year, while the school bounces back from the ongoing pandemic that disrupts colleges nationwide. As the pandemic subsides, the success of the football program can be a catalyst for driving enrollment back to nearly 10,000 students, which it posted in 2017.
For decades, there’s been a link to athletic success boosting activity in the admissions office. The reigning Celebration Bowl champs North Carolina A&T, which recently left the MEAC for the Big South Conference, projects an increased headcount of 14,000 by 2023, up from the 13,322 overall this fall.
“Enrollment at HBCUs is a key piece to financial sustainability and improvement to athletics,” said former Florida A&M athletic director Milton Overton, who is now AD at Kennesaw State. “If your enrollment grows, then the university has more opportunity to provide support.”
The momentum behind Sanders is being felt beyond campus borders. Visit Jackson CEO and president Rickey Thigpen estimates home games this season generated about $23 million in economic impact. That’s not including the $4.7 million projection for the SWAC Championship alone on Dec. 4.
Economic impact figures can be viewed with skepticism, but these at least provide a glimpse into how the momentum behind the football program has helped drive up revenue for local businesses in Jackson and nearby cities. Other HBCUs have taken notice of what a popular coach can bring—hinted at by the recent hirings of Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George at Tennessee State and ex-NBA star Reggie Theus at Bethune-Cookman.
Sanders, who is on a four-year, $1.2 million deal, was linked to the TCU job before the school filled the position. The rumors of his interest in a head coaching role at a larger program are unlikely to diminish, especially if the success continues at JSU. The former Florida State standout has maintained his commitment to the Tigers, but history has shown a great opportunity—and a bigger paycheck—can sway almost any coach.
Whether he stays for two more years or 20 years, Sanders is enjoying this moment, while also doubling down on a sustainability playbook that will make JSU a winner long after he’s done coaching.
“We have work to do,” he said.
(This story has been updated in the 10th paragraph with the exact number of HBCU games shown on ESPN platforms.)